The Doll-Master and Other Tales of Terror
Joyce Carol Oates is amazing. Her first novel, WITH SHUDDERING FALL, released in 1964; she began publishing short fiction soon thereafter and has never looked back. Oates has since written over 40 novels, as well as several volumes of short fiction, amassing an astounding collection of awards along the way. She is a literary writer whose fictional work (she writes nonfiction as well) transcends genres. Oh, and she still writes things out in longhand, though she has been known to utilize Twitter (sometimes notoriously so), sliding effortlessly back and forth between the tried and true and the new technology.
"At a time in her career when she could be phoning in her stories, Oates continues to offer the world a bounty of work that remains fresh, new and always interesting."
As one might gather from the above, Oates is an amazingly prolific author, but she never sacrifices quality for quantity. THE DOLL-MASTER is a newly published collection of longer short fiction consisting of six stories culled from sources ranging from Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine to the Idaho Review. She does not hang her stories on quirky or unexpected endings; each and all of the tales here are somewhat predictable with respect to their climaxes. One reads Oates, particularly her shorter work, for the joy of the journey. This is especially true of “Mystery, Inc.,” the story that closes the book. It introduces us to a bibliophile whose passion to acquire books goes a step or two beyond most collectors, and whose meticulous research and nefarious plotting are usually enough to get him what he wants. Usually.
The title story also concerns acquisition, but in a different manner. “The Doll-Master” is a highly disturbed young man who collects dolls of a special kind as he sequesters his collection away from prying eyes, even as the domestic situation that has permitted him to carry out his hobby begins to quietly collapse around him. The intertwining of domestic and economic collapse is a theme that Oates has revisited frequently in many different and distinct facets throughout her career, and she does so here as well in “Big Momma,” in which a lonely young girl on the cusp of adolescence makes a new friend and all too quickly acquires a new family of sorts. One knows from the beginning that this story --- my favorite of the collection --- is going to end badly. The question is to what degree, and Oates, who rarely if ever disappoints, is more than up to providing an answer that may or may not be the lesser of two evils. Domestic collapse is also the subject of “Equatorial.” A woman who suspects that her marriage is on the rocks joins her husband on a research trip to Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands, where she encounters revelations about him, and herself, that may be too little and too late.
The remaining two stories, “Soldier” and “Gun Accident: An Investigation,” concern firearms, as one might expect from the titles. Oates has been a passionate advocate of gun control in her Twitter statements; to some extent, her feelings leak into and unfortunately take over “Soldier,” to the detriment of the story’s literary quality. “Gun Accident: An Investigation” fares somewhat better. A young girl’s house sitting job for her respected teacher goes badly, and very quickly so. Oates makes a strong point here, though perhaps it is not the one she intended to make. You will never hear a knock on the door again without thinking of this ultimately terrifying tale.
THE DOLL-MASTER is neither a long nor a dense offering of fiction. Although a literary writer, Oates never lets her exquisite prose or powerful story get in the way of each other. At a time in her career when she could be phoning in her stories, Oates continues to offer the world a bounty of work that remains fresh, new and always interesting. THE DOLL-MASTER is no exception.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on May 13, 2016